Thursday, 5 August 2010

Sizzling sausages, tossers and trousers - Transatlantic translation.

Is your book being translated into American? It's a question I’ve been asked a lot recently, as the US publication date of When I Was Joe approaches.*
No, I say, absolutely not. ‘Are you sure?’ people reply, ‘But will they understand it? It’s so….well, British…’
And now an American reviewer, for the prestigious Kirkus Reviews has raised the same point. ‘The staunchly un-Americanized text results in some odd, culturally specific references that could confuse some readers unfamiliar with the milieu: Kissing Ashley makes Ty's body sizzle like sausages in a pan, for instance.’
Although he likes the book enough to call it ‘a fast-moving page-turner …a complex, engaging read,’ the reviewer did worry that what he calls Briticisms would act as ‘speed bumps’ slowing down American readers. And clearly he did become a little confused himself, thinking that Ashley was Ellie’s sister.
Obviously I am proud to be staunchly un-Americanised (please note that I spell it with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’…which I pronounce ‘zed’, rather than ‘zee’). I was, after all, the mother at an International School who sent a pompous note to my daughter’s teacher asking that her spelling list be altered to include the ‘u’ in ‘neighbourhood.’ It was partly my experience of living in an international community in Amsterdam, where gradually you ease ‘Briticisms’ out of your speech for ease of communication, that made me revel in writing such an uncompromisingly British book.
But I don’t want American, or other readers, to sweat the speed bumps. Those metaphorical sausages for example. They are sizzling because they are being fried. In a frying pan. Which Americans might call a griddle. They are not frankfurters being boiled in a saucepan. Their skins could explode at any minute. I hope that’s now perfectly clear.
I would never have imagined that sausage cooking methods would create cultural confusion. And I find it hard to work out which words are staunchly un-Americanised and which are universal. Luckily the very wonderful Anne M Leone, an American writer based in England has made a list for me(see below) Print it out please, US readers, and keep it at your side as you read When I Was Joe.
But, if you can’t do that, don’t worry. I feel the Kirkus reviewer may underestimate American teens. After all British readers cope fine with references to bathrooms, vacation, proms and sophomores. We’re not too bothered by sidewalks and drugstores.

I much prefer a book where the language reflects its setting to one which has been blandly set in a mid-Atlantic Anywhere. We can't all travel to other countries. We can read books from all over the world.

Anyway, at least I have avoided the confusion caused by Louise Rennison where, in one of her fabulous Georgia Nicholson books, she refers to ‘a chav lighting up a fag.’ No…don't worry Americans...not that kind of fag!**

Those un-Americanised ‘Briticisms’ translated:
Canteen - cafeteria.
Custard creams – very nice biscuits. Unless stale. Whoops, sorry…very nice cookies.
Crisps – chips. And when Ty talks about chips he means fries.
Football - soccer.
Asda – Cheap supermarket.
Tesco – Slightly more expensive supermarket.
Newsagents - place to buy newspapers, magazines, cigarettes (aka fags) and candy...which we call sweets.
Petrol bomb A very basic explosive device. Petrol is gas.
Flat - apartment.
Soppy – silly, girly, sentimental.
Trousers - what do you mean they don’t have trousers in America? What do they call them? I don’t know… like jeans but not made of denim. Oh hang on! PANTS! Snigger, snigger.
Naff – poor quality and a bit stupid
Mobile phone – cell phone? Is that what they’re called?
Fry up – lots of fried food altogether on one plate - sausage, bacon, egg, tomato, mushrooms..
Chemist - pharmacist or drugstore
Cheque-book - check book
Open University - fantastic institution in the UK through which you can study for a degree by post.
Fringe – hair that’s over your face. They called them bangs in Anne of Green Gables, so maybe that’s the word still used.
Nadine Coyle Singer in Girls Aloud. Very big in the UK. Google her.
Year eight, year nine….I know this! Grades 7 and 8.
High street - Main street?
Semi - a semi-detatched house - two houses stuck together.
Estate – A council estate is an area of social housing provided by the local government. About to be abolished by current British government as far as I can see. But you can also have an estate of private housing.
Heavies – big scary thugs,
Mates - friends
Loo – toilet (is that an American word?) Thing that you use when you go to the bathroom, that isn't a bath.
Reception (at St Luke's) Pre-K.
Queuing This was the word on Anne’s list that made me fall around laughing…they don’t know what queuing is..hahaha…It’s waiting in line. Ancient British tradition.
Stodgy – full of carbs. Heavy on the stomach.
Athletics squad - track team.
Council - local government. Also about to be abolished by current British government, as far as I can see.
CV - resume
Dodgy – errrr…I need the context, but illegal, criminal, dubious should cover it.
Biscuits - cookies.
Girls Aloud - I thought they were universal! Girl band. Google them.
X Factor - British version of Pop Idol.
Bugger – Literally sodomist. Just a mild expletive.
Rubbish tip – errr…garbage dump? Landfill?
Alcopops - sweet drinks that are surprisingly high in alcohol content.
Solicitor - a kind of lawyer.
Chav - British word for ‘working class person that I despise, even if I am working class myself’
"Grass me up" - tell the police about me.
PSHE - personal, social and health education. Where they teach you about puberty,
Snog - kissing +++
Tossers –literally masturbaters. Means idiots.
Trainers - running shoes.
Chuffed - pleased
Prat - stupid person
Poxy – need context, but generally bad.
Bollocks – literally testicles. Means rubbish.
PE kit - things you wear for sport.
Narked - annoyed.
GCSE - a very important exam you take when you are 16.
Candyfloss - cotton candy
Slapper - promiscuous girl.
Craig David – has-been singer given to wearing hats and shades.
Aggro - aggressiveness.
Telly – television.
"They got no bottle" No bottle = no courage.
Minger Ugly girl. Pronounced to rhyme with singer, not ginger.
Knickers - panties. Is that what Americans call them?
ASBO – Anti-Social Behaviour Order. Given to badly behaved people. About to be abolished by new British government.
Pram-face - Rude name for teenage mother
Git - Just an insult.
GBH -Grievous Bodily Harm. One step down from attempted murder.

*Published in the US on September 2!! Whoo hoo!
** Many thanks to Emily Evans on the Facebook page for giving me this anecdote.


  1. Yes....well said, young lady. I accept all Americanisms, when reading books set/written in the US of A, it is part and parcel of reading an Americanised novel. I do not feel I have to question any of it, so why is our style of living and writing being brought into question? Acceptance and vive la difference, as they say in the West Midlands, UK.

  2. Hah, love this, and all the editorializing (with a zee!) along with it! =)

    Though I agree with you--I hate the idea of books being "translated" for kids, especially books that have such a British feel such as yours.

    Few further thoughts...

    Yep, fringe is bangs. Fringe is one of those British words that still confuses me every time I see it.

    An American wouldn't say they're going to the toilet; it's rude. They always say bathroom (or powder room if over 50), and it's up to the listener to decide what they're going to do in there.

    Narked is confusing because in American English a narc is a Narcotics Officer (ie, someone who might arrest you for drug possession). Also, you can narc on someone.

    Underwear or panties. Panties being much more girly and lacy, of course.

    Naff is one of my favorite British words.

    I might print this list out and stick it on my fridge for further reference. =)

  3. Really interesting post. Is this an issue that only affects British books going to America? I can't think of any American written books that I've read that have been "Britished". As a teenager I used to love all of the linguistic differences in the American high school based books that I was reading.

  4. I've just commented on the wrong page of this blog, having to sign out of one and into another Google account confused me :-(
    I like the very British feel of When I Was Joe, American spellings and phrases would have been very out of place, just 'wrong' and would have altered the feel of the book.

  5. The Hitchhiker's Guide books were fully British. I enjoyed reading them as a kid in Minnesota; when I moved to London later and had learned British English and its references I re-read them and enjoyed them that much more.

    "Philosopher's Stone" to "Sorcerer's Stone" is the worst offender!

  6. Heaven preserve us from Mid-Atlanticisms!

    I can see why the reviewer mentioned this, but I really don't see how Americanising a book set so convincingly in London would have worked. Anyway, it's never a bad idea to remind the young (or anyone else for that matter) that people do things differently elsewhere, that there is an elsewhere. I'm sure US readers can cope.

  7. Hi Keren. Stopping by again just to let you know I put an award for you on my blog.

  8. Thanks Anne!
    Would love to hear about other writers' experiences of being Americanised or not.

  9. "Kissing Ashley makes Ty's body sizzle like sausages in a pan, for instance.’"

    I apologize for this example, which reflects a provincial outlook on the part of the reviewe, who may not have ever lived outisde a major city or anywhere west of the Alleghenies/east of the Rockies.

    There's an entire brand of American link sausages called Little Sizzlers. They're not a niche product; they're made by Hormel! We have them every Thanksgiving for breakfast, and yes, they sizzle in the frying pan. It is an extremely apt reference and anybody who grew up in Middle America would get it.


  10. I knew it! Thanks Anne, and hurray for Middle America.

  11. I say zed too. I'm Canadian. Everything I know about British culture I've learned from Coronation Street! They fry sausages in a frying pan in the US. We fry Canadian back bacon in a frying pan ;-j

  12. Aah...I'm reading Linger by Maggie Stiefvater and I've just found a reference to bags of crisps. In Minnesota. They must have been anglicised.
    The silly thing is that these 'crisps' appear to be Doritos, which are called tortilla chips in the UK. Not crisps.

  13. Awesome post. Craig David - ha, forgot about him. I think you're right not to worry about it too much. Having a sense of place is so important. I get a lot of Americans sending me emails saying they love my blog even though they don't understand some of the references.
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  14. I once mentioned to an American that my Dad used to knock me up at 7 a.m. on a school morning... I don't think even we would say that now?

    My American friends also used to fall about laughing when I referred to the slightest positive thing as brilliant. However, when I offered to make coffee, that was awesome!

    NB. Never compliment an American's abode by calling it homely. Apparently this refers to people who you consider matronly or dumpy (as if we'd be so rude to say so!).

    I could go on...

  15. @Fish I'm British and even I don't understand some of your references..
    @Rachel American parents at the school my children went to in Amsterdam used to be surprised that we Brits would praise our children for being 'sensible.' We cracked up when they told their kids 'good job!' all the time...

  16. Great list, and I have a few more translations, having been living in the US for eight years now, and been misunderstood constantly.

    Council estate= 'the projects'. Never singular. Unless you substitute 'the ghetto' which I would argue is different.
    Semi-detached house= duplex
    Rubbish tip= dump
    Yes, fringe = bangs, and moves therefore from singular to plural. She has a fringe= she has bangs.

    I agree in principle that you shouldn't have to Americanis(/z)e, but in practice if you want to be understood (and sell lots of books!), it might be a good idea....

  17. I think we would be more comfortable with Americanism because we're subject to their culture more. I mean for goodness sake half the shows on TV are a product of America. So we are more apt to make translations. Asked my NY friend if I could use her mobile and she looks at me blankly would have been there all day if I didn't realize the mistake and said cell phone. Oh with trainers I think sneakers might be a better translation and the crisp, chips fries thing is just too funny.

  18. OK, so now you've got me started... Different words and phrases can be funny but what I find irritating is words that are almost the same. E.g. The Very Busy Spider has a pesty fly in it instead of pesky. Oranges have pits instead of pips. And an American would scarf down his food if he were very hungry instaed of scoff.

    P.S. I once said, 'don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs,' and the Americans present were visibly shocked. They didn't know what I meant but heard the word 'suck' and assumed it was very rude.

  19. Oh dear. I really feel like translating books really just emphasises how little publishers and so on think of teenagers. Especially American ones. Surely, it isn't that complicated within the context of the story?!

    ..and I love your helpful list of translations there at the end. I could have used that 10 years ago!

  20. Reading Linger and suddenly noticing the 'crisps' which should have been all-American chips made me think that the aim of good americanisation or anglicanisation is that it shouldn't be noticeable. I'm sure my eye skims over words like 'pavement' and 'chemist' in American books edited for the UK market, without even realising. But I think I'd prefer to read the original text and enjoy the differences.

  21. "Speed Bumps"???
    Is it a race to finish the book or what?
    Honestly, some critics, reviewers, whatever really do feel the need to scrape out every crevice of negativity they can find.
    Funny post Keren, nice one.

  22. I have to admit that I'm a little bit flabbergasted that the reviewer took issue with the language. (Or that the reviewer somehow mistook Ashley to be Ellie's sister... I'm still trying to figure out how he made that mistake.) The idea that British works should be "translated" for American readers is, quite honestly, ridiculous. The exact same people asking for Americanized text would be mortified if the dialect was edited out of works by authors like Mark Twain. Although I'll admit that I didn't get every reference I certainly didn't see them as speed bumps. On the contrary, I think that the language lends authenticity to the story.

    Thanks for sharing this list. It was nice to see which ones I figured out through context clues and which ones I didn't get outright. My personal favorite: Naff. =)

  23. Honestly, I'm glad you didn't "Americanise" it. That would be doing us American kids a disservice; they already let us be lazy in pretty much everything else, at least make us (them, I do it on my own) use our brains when reading a book that's still written in it's natural language!